It may not look like much, but Jean Pierre Freneau’s new venture in Phnom Penh is a ride fit for royalty.
His electric minibus will soon be converted into a royal carriage of sorts when three members of the Cambodian royal family – who Freneau is not allowed to name – take a tour of the capital’s historic spots on his Phnom Penh Heritage Tour.
With the aid of headphones and an Android-powered tablet, the royals will soon take a step back in time, and over the course of two and a half hours witness Phnom Penh’s transformation from a fishing village into the bustling metropolis it is today.
Freneau first began tour operations seven months ago with a single tuk-tuk. However, after the 56-year-old Frenchman learned of an innovative electric vehicle he decided to adjust his business model and placed an order for the E-green minibus.
“When we created the tour we wanted something in a few languages . . . and we wanted people to discover [the city] differently. With the tablets, I think it’s great because we have pictures of the past and pictures of the present. We can enter some places that [ordinarily you’re] not allowed to, such as the Unesco building,” says Freneau.
He spent two years putting together the audio-visual components of the tour, consulting with historians, various archives in Phnom Penh and France, as well as reaching out to the King’s court to garner more background information about the city.
“I went to see the royal family to get an explanation and some details about the Royal Palace and all of that; the history about Elephant Street comes from them,” Freneau says.
“More than 100 elephants lived there just nearby the Royal Palace. They were considered as important as the royal family and during public holidays, musicians came just for them to play music.”
The tour begins at Post Square and provides a comprehensive view of 22 sites throughout Phnom Penh, including Wat Phnom, the US Embassy, Central Market and the Unesco building.
“I think it’s the best way to discover Phnom Penh … no noise, no pollution, really clear because we have windows on [one side] and the other side is totally open,” says Freneau.
Freneau, who also owns the Kanika Boat, says that his greatest reward is when visitors decide to extend their trips so that they can revisit a site.
“Almost 60 per cent of visitors say they prefer Wat Phnom. Almost all of them come back to Wat Phnom. The objective is to get [tourists] to stay longer than just one night. I think if we continue like this, we will be successful because people discover Phnom Penh, understand there are things to do, and want to stay longer,” he says.
Tours are offered in English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese and Khmer. Freneau says that he plans to add a Korean and Italian audio accompaniment in the coming weeks as well.
With the idea taking off, Freneau will add a second electric vehicle to his fleet by the end of the year. He is also contemplating expanding the Heritage Tour’s operation to Siem Reap, Hanoi in Vietnam and Malacca in Malaysia.
Tickets for the Phnom Penh Heritage tour cost $22 for adults and $19 for children aged six to ten.
The electric bus departs at 9am and again at 1:30pm. There is an additional option to take the tour on a tuk-tuk for an extra $10, with patrons able to request their own departure time between 8am and 2pm.
To reserve a seat call Freneau by phone (017 915 812) or visit their website .